If you think hackathons are only good for coders and techies, think again. Hackathons—the short-term events during which a group of individuals works to solve a problem or create a new process or product—also can bring together employees from different departments to solve talent challenges. In the March 2021 issue of TD at Work, “Execute a Hackathon to Solve L&D Challenges,” John Parsell offers tips and outlines the steps to do so.
As with other L&D or talent issues, start with the end in mind. What is the current landscape of your organization, or what do you expect it will look like soon? “Your organization may anticipate rapid growth, need to implement a new technology, or need to find ways to combat attrition. Leverage those challenges and craft them into goals,” advises Parsell. With that understood, you can design quality challenge statements, which are the parameters under which you want your hackathon teams to solve the problem. Make the statements broad enough so that team members can get their creative juices flowing but narrow enough for them to focus. Want the L&D solution to be implemented by the end of the year? Include that in your challenge statement. Have no budget or a limited one? Make sure your hackathon team understands that so they can craft their solution accordingly. For example, a challenge statement might read, “How could we accelerate time to proficiency for 100 new customer service managers next year without exceeding our current CSM training costs?”
Create your teams with diversity in mind. Select an individual who is directly affected by the L&D challenge, such as a customer service representative. Include, as well, someone who is known for their creativity—perhaps someone from your marketing team. Another important individual to have on the team is someone known for being able to get things done. This individual doesn’t need to have “leader” in their title. Finally, incorporate someone from the L&D or talent development team.
To give your hackathon the best chances of success, another critical component is getting executive buy-in. This leader should be influenced by the challenge, and their presence should give creditability to the event. “Executive sponsorship gives your hackathon legitimacy and helps to assure participants that leaders have sanctioned it as a good use of their time,” writes Parsell. Generate interest and excitement for the event by working with your marketing team, using fun memes and GIFs, and sponsoring videos to promote the hackathon and get employees interested in partaking.
In addition to diverse hackathon teams, select a diverse set of judges. Someone who is touched by the challenge is a good candidate, as is another talent development professional. The hackathon is a good opportunity for team members to meet and network with judges, so including a senior leader on the panel is another good choice. But limit the number of judges on the panel, continues Parsell, so that the scoring process is efficient yet effective. Supply the judges with scorecards, which are also shared with participants. You want the hackathon team members to understand how their solution is going to be graded.
While hackathons have been conducted in one chunk of time (and sometime lasted overnight), that does not need to be the case for your L&D hackathon. Breaking up the event over several days can maintain excitement and an urgency to meet the deadline yet still give participants time to continue with their essential work responsibilities. And this can help enhance buy-in from senior leaders and managers.
Once the solutions are judged and a winning team is selected, take time to celebrate. Just as the hackathon can be held virtually using breakout rooms, so too can the celebration be remote. After your hackathon, in addition to moving the solution forward, evaluate the event. Did teams understand the challenge they had to solve for? Was the amount of time enough to ideate and develop their solution? Was the evaluation process fair?
L&D hackathons result in solutions for your talent development challenges and can showcase the talent development team’s innovation and technology skills. Such an event increases engagement across silos as individuals from different departments collaborate. Finally, as Parsell writes, “It’s an opportunity for employees to break free of their day-to-day role and work on something exciting and new in an environment that welcomes creative solutions.”